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Threat of Eastern red cedars is growing in Oklahoma, experts say

Oklahoma will never get rid of the invasive Eastern red cedars, which are costing the state about $447 million a year in economic losses, experts say. A lawmaker hopes the trees can be used to make money.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Modified: October 10, 2012 at 9:48 pm •  Published: October 11, 2012

It's estimated about 462 million Eastern red cedar trees are spread across Oklahoma, which costs the state nearly that much in dollars a year in catastrophic wildfires and the loss of range and hunting lands.

“We'll never get rid of it,” said Craig McKinley, state extension forestry specialist at Oklahoma State University. “It's too adaptive to our environment. I don't think we'll stop it unless we change our culture literally.”

About 45 people spent four hours Wednesday at a public hearing, talking about the predicament of trying to find a use for a renewable resource and how the trees can be harvested at a reasonable rate.

Rep. Richard Morrissette, who tried unsuccessfully this year to get a tax credit for farmers and ranchers who remove the trees from their land, called the hearing.

“Our goal is not to eradicate all cedars as we have worked hard to establish … to define Eastern red cedar as a renewable resource,” said Morrissette, R-Oklahoma City, who has worked to find a use for the tree over the past five years. “Cedar can be harvested and used for biofuel, pesticides, furniture, building material, pharmaceuticals and on and on. We need to continue to develop markets and to reduce wildfire risks and water loss and the infestation and destruction of our grazing land, but this will never happen without increasing the speed at which we harvest cedar.”

Costly proposals

Various proposals for using the tree have been suggested the past several years, but none have come to pass because of the cost of building a processing or manufacturing facility or establishing an infrastructure for a steady supply.

In the meantime, Oklahoma is losing an estimated 700 acres per day to the trees, McKinley said. That amounts to 50 Eastern red cedars at least 5 feet tall per acre. It's estimated the trees consume from 4 to 40 gallons of water a day.

About 1.5 million acres of the state's approximately 45 million acres have at least 50 percent Eastern red cedar ground cover, McKinley said.

Range land is especially susceptible to being taken over by the trees, he said.

And it's expensive to have the trees removed. It costs about $700 per day to cut the trees and another $575 a day to stack them.

It's obvious the state isn't taking advantage of what it has, he said.

“It's a renewable resource,” McKinley said. “People like red cedar quality — they like cedar chests and things like that — cedar paneling. The oils are valuable. It's been an issue of the logistics, the nonuniformity of the resource and the lack of production facilities.”

OSU estimates losses

Mike Thralls, executive director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, said OSU has estimated the annual economic loss caused by the Eastern red cedar to the state is about $447 million a year.

That doesn't include millions of dollars that will be spent by Oklahomans who are allergic to tree pollen, he said.

Studies have shown that the pollen grain concentrations produced by cedar trees tripled in the state from 1988 to 1996. Cedar pollen continues to increase as the population of the Eastern red cedar spreads into new areas.

Laura McIver, president of the Oklahoma City chapter of Quail Forever, said the spread of the trees is a main factor in the state's declining quail population as they take over the game bird's habitat.

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